Gaming from the Margins: An Outside Look at Mainstream Media

Gaming from the Margins: An Outside Look at Mainstream Media

I live in Buenos Aires, one of the largest cities in South America. Despite the fact that our country’s economy is in perpetual crisis and our politicians belong firmly in hell, we have some positive things going on for us. I am deeply grateful for my peaceful, if neurotic, home. But, like most people who

I live in Buenos Aires, one of the largest cities in South America. Despite the fact that our country’s economy is in perpetual crisis and our politicians belong firmly in hell, we have some positive things going on for us. I am deeply grateful for my peaceful, if neurotic, home. But, like most people who do not hail from central countries, I’ve also spent a lot of time looking outside, into the ever-present cultural there of mainstream media.

I love the mainstream. I am an avid watcher of popcorn flicks, disaster movies, and American TV series. Most of my favorite games are blockbuster hits from AAA companies, and even the tabletop RPGs I play are no indie, obscure venture. The beauty of mainstream media is, of course, in its high production value. There’s a huge amount of work and money put into them, and this sets them apart from other cultural products which, no matter how well thought out, simply can’t compete.

Champions of Regnum from NGD Studios

Champions of Regnum

Since I’ve been bilingual from a very young age, I’ve not always been immediately conscious of the cultural gap when consuming mainstream media. It’s hard to notice when you’ve missed a joke, a cultural reference, or the implications of a specific accent used by a particular character. The most natural thing is to take it all in stride; this way, I’ve built my own image of Anglophone culture as a familiar place, somewhere I could belong.

This image, although friendly, is not always accurate. There is a lot about myself that has to be relegated to the sidelines when interacting with Anglophone culture; the same is true when I’m playing my favorite games. I can’t help notice that these games reflect a view of the world that doesn’t always line up with my own. Eurocentrism is the biggest issue that comes to mind. I don’t mean to say any creators are at fault here; if they were, it would not be my place to call them out. There’s an additional layer of distance between me and their products: I am not necessarily the intended audience for them, and I wouldn’t claim to be.

Eternal Debt, by Ruibal (2001)

Eternal Debt, by Ruibal (2001)

Cultural gaps, interesting as they are to discuss, are not the only gaps I’ve found when gaming. Every gamer who has ever struggled with money will agree with me on this: Gaming is exclusionary. It requires an appropriate platform, access to the games themselves, and vast amounts of free time. And in a part of the world where the cost of electronics is warped by unfair taxes, customs, and delivery costs, exclusivity has meant that, for many years, I was simply unable to afford it. After my family’s meager finances were slain by one of the multiple economic crises of the Argentinian ’90s, there was no way I could replace the old consoles that were lost in one of many moving trucks. During my childhood, I understood that gaming was reserved for the ever-thinning upper-middle class and for the mythical hordes of pirates.

Luckily, digital downloads seem to have brought significant change to this situation. In 2014, a classmate informed me that EA Origin existed and was giving out Dragon Age: Origins for free. I was so far removed from the world of video games at the time that I had never heard of anything of the sort before–and it changed my life. Circumstances have changed again since then, but I still observe the trend among my local gamer friends: We all buy our games digitally. Piracy has taken a significant blow since digital downloads made the scene.

“Gaming is exclusionary.”

They aren’t just cheaper than physical copies; the fact that digital downloads make games universally available, no matter where you are, is just as important. Availability is a huge issue down here. Things that you might take for granted, like tampons (I kid you not, this happened) are not necessarily easy to come by. The acquisition of board games, RPG rulebooks, dice of good quality, geeky merchandise, and pretty much everything that makes me happy would require me to beg to a friend who would happen to be traveling abroad to bring me back some loot and then pray that the customs agents don’t require too exorbitant a bribe.

Oh, but there are alternatives, too. You can buy board games that are clones of the originals, only manufactured with cheaper materials and rebranded; you can buy pirated discs at a public square or pirate merchandise that was probably sewn by immigrant slave workers in a basement. There is a reason why magical realism started in Latin America: Our day-to-day lives can sometimes read as wildly imaginative fiction.

definitely not Scrabble

Definitely not Scrabble

This brings me back to the discussion of culture. It’s really hard to integrate both sides of my identity when the relationship between our cultures is so grossly asymmetrical. And sometimes, when I read news from the “first world” on Twitter or discuss the most mundane things with my online friends, it hits me that even though I am definitely part of something here, I’m also watching from the margins. Sometimes, I can feel othered; sometimes, I feel empowered by the realization that I don’t need to belong in just one place. I’m just as happy belonging in many.

So, looking for more places to belong, I’ve recently enrolled in a local game design course and started attending some twice-monthly game work events. The game development scene in my country is obviously small, but it benefits of the deeply ingrained value of solidarity that is typical of our society. I am excited for the future of the industry, and at the same time, wary that the broader context will stifle it again. It is hard to be enthusiastic with no reserve, when you’ve seen crisis after crisis destroy the economy, but I feel there is a lot of potential for growth. I know there is at least one AAA game in production at the moment, and it is not without precedent: Space strategy game Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars was developed by Buenos Aires-based NGD Studios, although backed by foreign capital.

“The importance of bringing quality projects to life cannot be overstated.”

The indie scene looks quite lively, too: NGD themselves have previously released MMORPG Champions of Regnum, and, as stated in their Wikipedia page, a toy (!) I used to love as a child. A few days ago I attended a talk by game designer Agustín Cordes, who explained narrative principles behind his game Serena, which is free on Steam. He’s currently working on Asylum, a horror game that I’m very excited to try. Skyrider looks amazing, too, and I heartily recommend reading this piece, where Adrián, one of its developers, discusses many of the same issues I’m touching upon here.

Aslyum from Senscape Studios

The importance of bringing quality projects to life cannot be overstated. Only if the local game industry flourishes and breaks through to the mainstream consumer will it finally gain a stable foothold to build upon. And when locally-produced games (be it from here or anywhere else in the vast peripheries of the world) can eventually compete with mainstream media in terms of production value, global culture as a whole will be enriched. One can only hope and work to make it happen.

Soco Cinconegui
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